Notes from the Middle Kingdom: In This Our Year of Dog

Words: James Kramer
Monday 19 February 2018
reading time: min, words

The dog days have just begun, and James Kramer, our main man in Beijing, has dropped in to wish us a happy new year. 恭喜發財, Notts! 


I’m coming in here a little bit late after the fact, more than a few days after the actual date that millions refer to as the New Year. Yet to excuse myself, I was otherwise detained gorging on gargantuan mountains of spring onion dumplings washed down with enough illegal alcohol to embalm a shire horse. The sale of illegal, knock-off booze around this time in China is well documented, with many smaller brands imitating the design of more status worthy, less-poisonous competitors to within a gnat’s unmentionables. But, as my father used to say, if it gets you drunk and helps you to forget your idiot son, then it’s all the same really.

While dumplings are the done thing, as is migrating half way across the world to sit in uncomfortable silence, slogging away at piles of sunflower seeds and peanuts in front of the Spring Festival Gala (both the most watched and most loathed annual programme in China, think the Royal Variety Performance with just a pinch more casual sexism and out n’ out racism), you people of Nottingham are able by your own good selves to go and experience the fireworks and parades, the performances of six year old children displaying more musical dexterity and talent that you could ever hope to accomplish without any help from me. So I’m here instead, still suffering the hair of the dog in this most canine of years, to explore some of the lesser known factoids about this year and its furriest of annual mascots.

I arrive at this topic with more than a little experience, both because my wife’s Chinese zodiac is that of the Dog and that while we lived in China, we owned our very own rescue pup, that is currently being overfed to the point of swinish magnitude that her nickname is, or “the little pig” by my in-laws still in the tundra of Southern China.  

Last week said wife informed me, that it’s ever more important for her this following year, to wear red. While I immediately dived into action and began frantically massaging her favourite white sweater with chili flakes she explained to me that, contrarily to our foolish western expectations of feeling special, being within the year of your own personal zodiac in fact brings bad luck rather than good. Because of this, it becomes ever more important to wear red, especially red underwear, in order to protect yourself against ill-will.

Before I could reach our cupboard drawer of shared unmentionables, Tabasco sauce ready in hand, she quickly told me that the garment should also be bought as a gift, in order to ensure the luck be protective. I understood the measured fury in her eyes, and so caught the next bus into town to buy red delicates and so protect us from bringing forth bad luck into the following lunar year. While on the bus, she mentioned that gold is also symbolically auspicious and therefore important to wear, and so I spent the rest of the journey deciding which lie to fall back on, settling at last on deleting the message and professing my ignorance about never having received the text.

Our own canine companion arrived three-ish years ago, inviting herself into my wife’s then home and settling in for the duration. It’s no exaggeration that she adopted us, rather than the other way around. Stray dogs are not much of an issue in China, certainly not in Beijing, but living near the university heavy part of town did increase sightings, as they’re common areas for people abandoning them, believing that students are more likely to take pity on doe eyed puppies and feed them. It’s true that you also saw (especially in foreigner heavy areas) that beggars (re not homeless, these are people who are brought in by gangs to the city to work in teams, but that’s another topic for a different day) almost always have four/five miniscule puppies before them, safe in the knowledge that this will increase how much us sappy idealists hand over. The sad reality being, that the puppies are always new born and never grow old. I don’t want to type it, so I’ll let you reach your own conclusions on that one.  

And so we had our little adopted mongrel, and after checking her for rabies and other general health issues, we had to issue her with a pup passport. Oh, the indignation! I had then been working for many a year in this the capital of China in some, if not arguably prestigious locations then at least always legally, paying my (very steep) taxes and doing my civic duty and yet I was and would always remain Laowai, a foreigner, praying for good fortune from one Z visa to the next. But the dog, the dog that does nothing but sleep and pee on early drafts of my work (she’s a damn harsh but arguably honest critic) then lick my face after eating discarded chicken bones from the street is allowed the privilege and status of owning a Chinese passport! The logical reason behind the pup passport system is to keep the numbers down, reduce stray populations and highlight the ownership of large/dangerous/illegal dogs. Think of it as a kind of one-pup policy, which it sort of is. I was actually stopped, on more than one occasion while out walking the little pig, and asked to produce her passport for inspection by the local community policing officer. I proudly displayed her passport, with miniature portrait photo and all, and then enquired as to why he wasn’t asking the same from the elderly woman with the visible crotch who was allowing her shivering poodle to defecate openly in the street with no sign of wipe-up paper in sight, at which he just smiled and wandered away. I let him leave, then turned to the pig and apologised. It seems that although she was nationally recognised, I would still be a nuisance for her. Then I bent down and she licked my neck and we fell further towards feeling eternally bonded.

From that moment on I promised her a life of quiet dignity. Not for us were the ridiculous looking red booties that seem to strap the paws of every Beijing dog come autumn. Nor would she be subjected to having her fur cut, dyed and blown up to resemble that of a panda. Chinese people do seriously love their dogs, but some of the public shame that is doled out in the name of cuteness doesn’t really display their old Canis Lupus ancestry all that well. That said, there was a time when the most profitable commodity to import into the middle kingdom was that of Red Tibetan Mastiffs (status dogs), an trade that has very much declined in recent years. Alongside the well-known pocket rodents that are commonly owned in inner-city areas, Chinese dogs can still be formidable, so much so that a zoo in Louhe in Henan province was able to disguise one as an African lion for a seemingly significant duration until someone noticed that it barked not too dissimilarly to Scooby.

There’s evidence to suggest that domesticated dogs have been in China since the Neolithic Period, 7,000 years ago, and that they were used as hunting compatriots during the Wu & Yue warring states. Much later on, during the Qing Dynasty, the Pekingese became popular favourites with the imperial elite (hence the name?). I’m not going to touch on the whole eating dog issue, suffice to say that it was once, many hundreds of years ago, an accepted and then shunned practice. Although there are still instances of dogs being stolen for the purpose of food (my wife’s fear about our own pup’s juicy looking rolls of fat now made clear) it’s also true that the penalties for anyone caught dog snatching are severe. Commonly, gangs will try to poison the animals with an arrowed dart that kills them. A group of such individuals were recently sentenced to death for such actions, so it’s a…tricky issue.

Dogs have become common in modern Chinese internet slang. Lovelorn and alone? Then you’re a  单身狗  Danshen gou or  ‘single dog’. You can be an overtime dog (加班狗), a student dog (学生狗) or even ‘dog hot’ () which I am as of now still unclear about, but assume it to mean that you sleep nestled between two tasty buns of starchy white bread (sounds dirty though it shouldn’t).

For our own little family, I have now to survive on conversations with my canine companion via skype. Even though my wife is sure that she’s too simple to understand that it’s me on the other end of the line. I still can’t help but take her (the dog) slavering on the floor to mean that she misses me. So, stock up on red and gold and good fortune, make sure that you treat your pups extra especially well this lunar year, and don’t forget to take all of your partner’s intimate clothing and douse it with a liberal helping of paprika. Ah, auspicious promise, Happy New Year Nottingham.  

We have a favour to ask

LeftLion is Nottingham’s meeting point for information about what’s going on in our city, from the established organisations to the grassroots. We want to keep what we do free to all to access, but increasingly we are relying on revenue from our readers to continue. Can you spare a few quid each month to support us?

Support LeftLion

Please note, we migrated all recently used accounts to the new site, but you will need to request a password reset

Sign in using

Or using your

Forgot password?

Register an account

Password must be at least 8 characters long, have 1 uppercase, 1 lowercase, 1 number and 1 special character.

Forgotten your password?

Reset your password?

Password must be at least 8 characters long, have 1 uppercase, 1 lowercase, 1 number and 1 special character.